Parshah Summary – P’shat
The parshah opens with Pharaoh changing his mind about allowing the Children of Israel to leave Egypt, and chasing after them to force their return. The Israelites become terrified, finding themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s armies and the sea. God tells Moses to raise his staff over the water; the sea splits to allow the Israelites to pass through, and then closes over the pursuing Egyptians. Moses and the Children of Israel sing a song of praise and gratitude, while Miriam and others play drums.
In the desert the people suffer thirst and hunger, and repeatedly complain to Moses and Aaron. The bitter waters of Marah miraculously become sweet when Moses throws wood into it, and later Moses brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff. A miraculous kind of bread, “manna” (man) rains down from the heavens before dawn each morning, and quails appear in the Israelite camp each evening. The Children of Israel are instructed to gather a double portion of manna on Friday, as there will be none on Shabbat, the day of rest. Some go out on Shabbat to gather manna anyway, but find nothing. Aaron preserves a small quantity of manna in a jar, as a testimony for future generations.
In Rephidim, the people are attacked by the Amalekites, who are defeated by Moses’ prayers and an army raised by Joshua…
Torah of Awakening | Jewish Meditation Teaching
עׇזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַאֲרֹמְמֶֽנְהוּ׃
The Divine is my strength and song; The Divine has become my salvation. This is my God and I will praise Him; The God of my father, and I will exalt Him…
- Shemot (Exodus) 15:2, “Song of the Sea,” Parshat Bo
A schoolmaster from the town of Goray used to travel to visit Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin. During one of his visits, the rebbe told him, “In your town there is a holy spark. Please try to locate it and bring it to me.
When the schoolmaster arrived back home, he considered the learned townspeople one by one, but wasn’t able to identify any of them as the “holy spark” his rebbe spoke of. So, he decided to hide himself at night in the beit midrash – the House of Study – because he thought if there were someone saintly in his town, he might find them there. In the dead of night he waited several hours, crouching in the corner.
Suddenly, he heard a noise – an odd youth by the name of Mendel had snuck into the room by himself. Mendel was an unusual character who was known to gesticulate awkwardly and make strange noises. But this night, the schoolmaster saw Mendel open a volume of Talmud and enthusiastically study out loud, singing the words in his own unique melody, all the while standing on one foot
As the schoolmaster watched in awe, he accidentally lost his balance and knocked over a tin tzeddaka box (for charity) which crashed to the floor, spilling its jangling coins. Startled, the youth closed his book at once, strode suddenly over to the stove, clapped his hands loudly and started making strange noises. The schoolmaster stood up, approached the youth and said, “I know full well that your outlandish behavior is intended only to delude people. But your acting can’t fool me, for the Seer of Lublin told me to bring you to him.”
Mendel lost no time and set out for Lublin. When Mendel’s father, who was a misnaged (opponent of Hasidism), found out that his son was on his way to the court of a famous hasidic rebbe, he rode after him in hot pursuit. When he caught up with his son, he challenged him: “Why do you forsake the tradition of your fathers?” his father scolded. Mendel replied, “In the Song of the Sea, when the Israelites were liberated from their slave identity and finally had the freedom to celebrate their true identity as children of God, first it is written: זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ zeh Eli v’anvehu – ‘This is my God and I will glorify Him,’ And only later is it written: זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ zeh Eli v’anvehu ‘The God of my father, and I will exalt Him…’
Mendel’s father was taken aback and silenced, but later he understood: each person must find their own unique path, and not merely copy the patterns given to them by tradition. That youth became the famous rebbe, Menakhem Mendel of Kotsk, the Kotzker Rebbe.
The patterns of religious tradition are vital necessities, just like the patterns of life. Without the repetitive predictability of our lives – our homes, our activities, the days of the week and months of the year, life would be chaotic and therefore unsupportive. Similarly, the tapestry of tradition provides a setting for meaningful movement on the path of the spirit. The patterns of life and tradition are like a circle, reliably repeating themselves again and again to provide a foundation of support. This is why the letter ס samekh, which means “support,” has the shape of a circle.
But there is a complementary, non-circular movement that is also necessary. Reality is not all repetition, but is rather a creative unfolding, ever changing. For our spiritual lives, as well as the whole of our lives, there is a creative uniqueness in each of us that must also be honored in order for the path to be alive, relevant and effective; the circle must at times be interrupted, disrupted, transformed.
Why? Because while the circle is supportive, it is also deadening; its side-effects are complacency, taking-for-granted. To counter this, we need the remedy of disruption, of the unexpected…
וַיָּבֹ֧אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּת֥וֹךְ הַיָּ֖ם בַּיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה וְהַמַּ֤יִם לָהֶם֙ חוֹמָ֔ה מִֽימִינָ֖ם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָֽם׃
And the Children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left…
Sometimes we discover that Reality doesn’t correspond to the map of reality we hold in our minds. It can be a shock: something of which we are certain turns out to be completely wrong. When “being wrong” means that things turn out far better than we thought they would, we call that a “miracle.” The Egyptian army is behind us and the sea is front of us – we are doomed. And then, the sea opens before us – a miracle! Or, we’re stranded out in the wilderness with no food or water – we are doomed for sure. But then: we wake up in the morning and a strange food covers the ground – manna from heaven! Another miracle!
These fantastical examples highlight our capacity to realize the miraculous. But in truth, we don’t need fantastical events. As long as we are alive, we are being showered with miracles in each moment. In fact, you are the miracle – in this moment. But to realize this takes a turning of consciousness away from the circle of the expected, the reliable tapestry of conditioned mind, into the Mystery of the Present. The greatest of all miracles is constantly unfolding, and so it appears to be ordinary – until the mind that is present pierces the ordinary, straight through to the Divine miracle of Being. This is the meaning of Yisrael: seeing straight through (Yishar) to the Mystery that we call Divine (El). The conditioned patterns of life and tradition form a necessary support, but from this support we must spring into the unconditioned, into the unknown. How do we do it
וַֽיהֹוָ֡ה הֹלֵךְ֩ לִפְנֵיהֶ֨ם יוֹמָ֜ם בְּעַמּ֤וּד עָנָן֙ לַנְחֹתָ֣ם הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ
Hashem went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to guide them along the way…
- Shemot (Exodus) 10:1, Parshat Bo
The “pillar of cloud” means that which is beyond our perception; cloud is Mystery. Living through the conditioned mind, we rely on the support of things happening the way we expect. But as we move beyond the conditioned mind into the present, the “cloud” becomes visible; the truth is uncertainty. While uncertainty can tend to produce fear and anxiety, one of the fruits of meditation is the embrace of the unknown, which is foundation of creativity. Say “yes” to the Mystery; try something new, see what happens, surprise yourself. But what if you don’t have any new ideas? What if your creativity seems all dried up?
וְלַ֛יְלָה בְּעַמּ֥וּד אֵ֖שׁ לְהָאִ֣יר לָהֶ֑ם לָלֶ֖כֶת יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְל ׃ …
and by night, in a pillar of fire to shine for them, for traveling both by day and night.
The “pillar of fire” means being still, alert, and present in the darkness of “night” – that is, the state of “not-yet.” Creativity is a kind of revelation; we cannot control it, but we can prepare ourselves receive it. This is why meditation is so vital: while fear and anxiety block the creative flow, embrace of the unknown is the precondition for it. Be the עַמּוּד אֵשׁ amud aysh – the pillar of fire – a still, alert presence in the darkness of the not-yet.
As the Israelites follow the pillars of cloud and fire and are led to freedom through the Sea of Reeds, they break into singing praises for the miracle of their liberation. This famous “Song of the Sea” tells their story – it expresses their unique identity. Similarly, when you learn to follow the pillars of cloud and fire in your own life, you’ll be led on your own unique path of destiny. Present and free from complacency and resistance, your inner flower will blossom, in a way that is unique to you. Then, your life becomes your song – this is the path of ה hei, of creative, unique self-expression.
On this Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, may the fire and cloud lead each one of us toward the full and beautiful unfolding of who we really are, to sing our unique songs that the One can only sing through the many, through each one of us uniquely. May our practice plant the seeds of redemption in the world, that human life become a celebration of creativity, and the plagues of war and violence become relics of history...
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